Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Thousands of Teens Lose Drivers Licenses

Many suspended for unpaid fines, minorities are hardest hit.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Jun 5th, 2014 12:25 pm
Alejandro Morales lost his driver’s license before he gained it for unpaid citations for non-driving offenses such as retail theft and disorderly conduct. (Photo by Rick Brown)

Alejandro Morales lost his driver’s license before he gained it for unpaid citations for non-driving offenses such as retail theft and disorderly conduct. (Photo by Rick Brown)

Some Milwaukee teens are finding their driver’s licenses suspended, sometimes before they get them, because of unpaid tickets for non-driving offenses.

Jaywalking, loitering and shoplifting are among the offenses that can lead to the two-year Juvenile Failure to Pay Forfeiture (FPF) suspensions.

The  Wisconsin Department of Transportation issued 16,945 such suspensions statewide in 2013, data show.

Some of those suspensions are ordered before recipients have gotten a license. As of January 2012, 308 Milwaukee teens had suspensions without licenses, according to a report from the Employment and Training Institute (ETI) at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“It may sound strange, but it’s referred to as ‘taking effect upon application,’” according to Chief Court Administrator Sheldyn Himle of Milwaukee Municipal Court. “If a person doesn’t yet have their driver’s license, DOT will enforce the suspension at such time as they apply for the driver’s license.”

More than 90 percent of the 308 teens in Milwaukee were African-American or Hispanic.

According to researchers such as ETI Director John Pawasarat, the FPF suspensions, combined with the high cost of mandatory driver’s education, are leaving many youths from poor neighborhoods unable to get licenses.

“If you receive a suspension, you have to pay the fine before you even get a license, and then you have to pay for instruction,” Pawasarat said. “It’s almost become a given that you won’t get your license, and you’ll drive anyway.”

Numerous fines can lead to suspensions

Juvenile FPF suspensions arise from nonpayment of citations for driving and non-driving offenses.

When court cases result in a fine, individuals have a limited amount of time to pay them under Wisconsin law. If they do not, courts may order a driver’s license suspension that lasts two years or until the fines are paid.



In Milwaukee Municipal Court, the suspensions are the usual outcome for nonpayment of fines for juveniles, which typically fall in the range of $70-90, Himle said. However, judges sometimes refer juveniles to community service with local organizations as an alternative to repayment, she added.

Unlike adult FPF suspensions, juvenile suspensions can be imposed for nonpayment of non-driving citations. Juveniles can lose their licenses for unpaid fines resulting from such offenses as curfew violations, disorderly conduct, loitering and retail theft, according to former Milwaukee city judge Jim Gramling.

Two years ago, Milwaukee County resident Alejandro Morales, 18, incurred citations for disorderly conduct, retail theft and trying to buy cigarettes.

“It was dumb stuff,” he said. “I got caught for retail theft and I had cigarettes. In one stop, I got three tickets.”

The incident was one of several in which Morales got tickets for non-driving offenses in Milwaukee and Greendale. At the time, Morales said, he did not go to court or pay attention to the notices he received in the mail. He said he thought the tickets would go away.

“I didn’t think they’d lead to a suspension,” Morales said. “I thought juvenile tickets were dropped at 18.”

Morales discovered otherwise when he tried to get a permit last year and found that he would have to pay all of his old tickets before getting a license. Unable to pay, Morales got rides from friends or took the bus. He sometimes drove without a license, and later received a ticket for that.

In September, Morales went to the Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability (CDLRE), having “realized the gravity of tickets and what they could mean.” With the center’s help, he has paid his tickets and aims to get his license within the month. A baggage handler at General Mitchell International Airport, Morales hopes to buy a car and possibly to seek a job at the airport’s ticket counter — one that requires a license.

Differing perspectives

According to Himle, juvenile FPF suspensions are the only option for Milwaukee Municipal Court, as the court cannot imprison youths for municipal violations and does not pursue wage garnishments in these cases.

That is an appropriate option, according to Gramling, a former municipal judge. He noted that judges felt powerless to hold juveniles accountable when state legislation temporarily removed their power to impose suspensions for non-driving offenses in the early 2000s.

“You don’t want to jail kids for municipal fines, but there was no way functionally to make the parents pay the forfeitures,” Gramling said. “Suspensions were the only ways of getting juveniles’ attention.”

From 2009-2013, juvenile FPF suspensions for all offenses were the fifth most common reason for license withdrawals in Wisconsin, constituting an average of approximately 4.5 percent of all withdrawals in that time period. According to DOT data, 238,050 juvenile FPF suspensions were issued from 2003 to 2012.

FPF suspensions are a flawed tactic that hurts individuals’ chances to gain employment, according to Pawasarat, a researcher who authored a report on the driver’s license status of Milwaukee teens in 2012.

“Taking away licenses for failure to pay petty fines in municipal court is one of the most destructive policies we have in place,” Pawasarat said. “It explains part of the reason why things are so bad for central city residents who are looking for work.”

In the 2012 report, Pawasarat analyzed data on juvenile suspensions. He found that while the suspensions affect a small number of juveniles in Milwaukee—287 African-American and Hispanic teens as of January 2012, for example—those juveniles rarely get a license.

Eighty-six percent of Milwaukee County teens who had a probationary license in 2000 had achieved a regular license in April 2008, according to the report. In contrast, only 23 percent of teens who received suspensions or revocations before getting a learning permit or probationary license in 2000 had achieved a regular license in 2008.

Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability Supervisor Angela Catania helps people try to gain their licenses after juvenile suspensions. (Photo by Rick Brown)

Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability Supervisor Angela Catania helps people try to gain their licenses after juvenile suspensions. (Photo by Rick Brown)

Broader implications

According to Pawasarat, juvenile FPF suspensions can have severe consequences for the employability of youths in poor neighborhoods in which gaining a driver’s license is “already a challenge” due to a lack of state funding for mandatory driver’s education.

ETI data shows a significant racial disparity in driver’s licenses held by teens in Milwaukee, Pawasarat noted. As of January 2012, 17 percent of black male teenagers living in Milwaukee had a license, whether probationary or other, compared to 64 percent of white male teenagers living in Milwaukee County suburbs.

“By the time they reach adulthood, most lower-income youths don’t have a driver’s license, and it’s not only a rite of passage but a requirement for pursuing employment when most jobs are outside of bus lines,” Pawasarat said.

According to Nichole Yunk Todd, policy and research director at Wisconsin Community Services, the suspensions can become a significant barrier to advancement for lower-income youth.

“Poor access to driver’s education and failure to pay forfeiture suspensions only compound the factor of poverty [for those juveniles],” Todd said. “If young people aren’t getting licensed, how are they going to go to work, to school?”

Many youths do not understand the impact of juvenile tickets, and some who get suspensions drive without a license, according to CDLRE Supervisor Angela Catania, who has worked with individuals with juvenile driver’s license suspensions.

“There need to be consequences in place, but [suspensions] can start kids off on a bad foot,” Catania said. “It can be a difficult situation to get out of.”

South Side resident Debby Montano, 41, discovered that reality when she received a ticket for driving without a license at 17, which led to a license suspension. Not understanding that she could still gain her license by paying the required fees, Montano said she went without one for seven years, often relying on public transit, which limited her options. Her sister also had her license suspended as a teenager.

“I didn’t even try to get a car because I wasn’t able to get a license,” Montano said.

Having regained her license years later, Montano is now taking her son to driver’s education classes to help him learn to drive responsibly.

“I don’t want the same thing to happen to him as well,” she said. “Everyone should have a license to make the streets safe for everybody.”

27 thoughts on “Thousands of Teens Lose Drivers Licenses”

  1. Andy says:

    Alejandro Morales is a prime example of why this punishment perfectly fits the crime. This young man thought he could steal and otherwise break the law and then ultimately not have to face any consequences. Some children just are not taught this by their parents and unfortunately it takes hard lessons for it to sink in. Luckily they are learning this lesson on something like a suspended drivers license and nothing more serious.

    Meanwhile, Debby Montano proves the process works. Like any good parent, she is taking the lesson she learned and teaching it to her children. Good job!

    We can not perpetuate a society that teaches people that there are no consequences for their actions.

  2. PMD says:

    “We can not perpetuate a society that teaches people that there are no consequences for their actions.”

    Sure we can. We do it all the time. White collar crime usually means a slap on the wrist at worst.

  3. Casey says:

    That’s what Milwaukee needs….more irresponsible drivers on the road that drive (and live) as if they can do whatever they want and not caring about that their actions have an effect on others.
    The conversation should be about jobs being closer to their employees in the city not about enabling poor behavior.

  4. PMD says:

    Every time I am in Mequon or Thiensville I am almost killed by a moron talking and driving. I wish they’d pull them over and give them a ticket but that never seems to happen. Talk about enabling poor behavior.

  5. Justin A says:

    @PMD…Why do you keep going to Mequon if you are almost killed there EVERY time you go?

    “The incident was one of several in which Morales got tickets for non-driving offenses in Milwaukee and Greendale. At the time, Morales said, he did not go to court or pay attention to the notices he received in the mail. He said he thought the tickets would go away.”

    Maybe this kid should be in jail. I don’t get the point of this article. Are you saying that African Americans should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, without consequence? This kid never went to court or paid any fines because he thought they would just “go away”. This article is unbelievable.

    And I’m sorry, but is this article suggesting that many people in the central city are committing crimes because of lack of public transportation?

  6. PMD says:

    I have to. Child care reasons. No choice.

    “Are you saying that African Americans should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, without consequence?”

    Yeah that’s exactly what the author is saying. It’s the first sentence isn’t it?

  7. Justin A says:

    @PMD… Aren’t you concerned that your child is living in a community as dangerous as Mequon?

  8. PMD says:

    We don’t live in Mequon. I’m concerned every time I drive there though that a talking-and-driving idiot is going to hit us.

  9. Tom D says:

    Why should the penalty for underage cigarette possession (a 2-year license suspension) be greater than that for speeding in a school zone (points, but no suspension)? By smoking, you mostly kill yourself; by speeding you kill others.

    If you hit a pedestrian at 20 mph, there is a 5% chance the pedestrian will die. If you hit one at 30 mph, there is a 37-45% chance the pedestrian will die. By speeding through a 20 mph school zone at 30 mph, you increase the risk of killing a pedestrian by at least 7-fold, and yet we treat underage cigarette possession as a more serious crime.

    In Wisconsin, if you are caught driving 90 mph in a 65 mph zone, your license is suspended for 15 days; if a minor is “habitually truant”, his license is suspended up to 1 year.

    A question for those of you who so heartily favor license suspensions for non-driving offenses: would you favor similar punishment for everybody who speeds in a school zone or a residential area?

  10. Casey says:

    @ Tom D….we have to remember cars and the person while they’re in the car are more important than anyone else so we can’t be too hard on them. Who cares if they’re endangering lives of people walking to school, bus and their jobs…all those who don’t drive or just merely second class citizens.

  11. Andy says:

    Tom, the suspension is not for possession of tobacco by a minor… the suspension is for unpaid fines. Just like a driver who is caught speeding and does not pay their fine… they too would lose their license or have it suspended.

    This isn’t about drivers vs non-drivers. This is about having no other recourse for collecting on fines and penalties. Like Alejandro, many kids think they can do whatever they want as a minor and will just go away when they become an adult. Apparently this is the only strategy that works for most situations.

  12. Casey says:

    to a certain extent this is about drivers and non-drivers. the spirit of the article for seems to be that these poor kids have it rough because they cannot legally drive (most still do including myself when I was that age) but driving shouldn’t be the only option. This is a narrow minded view the stumbles real progress in how our region is laid out keeping us car dependent. Not being accountable for irresponsible youthfullness is one problem trying to be tied in with car dependency.

  13. PMD says:

    Should you really lose your license if you can’t afford to pay a ticket for a broken headlight? Wouldn’t you continue driving if it was the only way to get to your job?

    A report in the online Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service found that 97,000 Failure to Pay Forfeiture (FPF) suspensions were issued in Milwaukee County in 2011. The article cited data uncovered by a 2012 report by UWM’s Employment and Training Institute.

    FPF suspensions are issued when people receiving citations – for violations such as driving with a broken headlight or without proof of insurance, or even multiple unpaid parking tickets.

    Rick Brown, the Milwaukee NNS reporter who covered the story, says those suspensions disproportionately affect people living in economically challenged parts of Milwaukee.

    “The north side and the south side are the most hit areas of Milwaukee,” he says. “And in fact, eighty-two percent of the people who received suspensions during that time were minorities. Sixty-five percent were African-American.”

  14. Justin A says:

    This is not about drivers vs. non-drivers. Don’t break the law and if you do, pay the fine. Then you don’t even need to worry about it.

    This quote just makes me cringe….

    “I got caught for retail theft and I had cigarettes. In one stop, I got three tickets.”

    He shouldn’t have been stealing. It’s not just the cigarettes, it’s the stealing. And him saying “I got caught” makes me think this isn’t the first time he has done it, it is just the first time he has been caught.

    We need to start getting these thugs off the streets. I don’t understand why I should feel bad that he lost his license because he was stealing and didn’t pay the fine.

    Maybe he should have stole some money to pay the fine….

  15. Justin A says:

    @PMD….I can’t tell you how many times an inattentive minority talking on their phone almost hit me in the inner city.

  16. PMD says:

    Retail theft makes him a thug? That is some messed up thinking. My sister and our cousin got picked up for retail theft from a Shopko as a teenager. Are they also thugs?

    And he is one person. One. In a single year in Milwaukee, it happened to 97,000 people! Should someone really lose their license if they can’t afford to pay a ticket for a broken headlight? Would you stop driving to your job if it meant losing it?

  17. Justin A says:

    I’m sorry that your sister and cousin steal. I hope they got caught.

    Fixing a broken headlight is not that expensive and almost every municipality will drop the ticket if you fix your headlight. If you can afford gas and insurance so you are able to drive, you should be able to afford to fix a broken headlight.

    We need to stop throwing pity parties for the inner city. This kid got caught stealing and now he is upset about the consequences. First retail theft but what’s next? Car theft? Drug dealing? Opening fire on a playground?

    Make better life decisions.

  18. Andy says:

    Casey is correct, the problems associated with a car helping someone with job prospects is a separate and more concerning issue that needs to be addressed.

    As far as the FPF process, it is necessary to hold people accountable… unless you have a better solution to make sure people are held accountable when they break the law?

    In the end, driving is a privilege, not a right. If you can’t afford to pay to fix a headlight then you can’t afford to own a car. Some people may find that difficult to accept, but that’s life.

  19. Justin A says:

    PMD…I have an idea…why don’t you pay their fines? Then they won’t lose their license.

  20. PMD says:

    Wow you are quick to judge. It must be nice to be perfect and only make good decisions at all times, always knowing that you are better than everyone else and in a position to label them regardless of whether or not you actually know them.

    My sister and cousin did get caught, and as far as I know neither has done it since. It was many years ago. So are they thugs? Is that all it takes in your eyes, some retail theft? Or only if the retail theft was committed by a black person?

    Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I learned that in like 3rd grade. Some of you obviously missed that lesson. Clearly there are people who have a car (or share one with family members) but struggle to pay tickets for things like a broken headlight. Stop acting like you are an expert on everyone’s circumstances. You’re not.

  21. Justin A says:

    I act like I’m better than everyone because I follow the law? Trust me man, I live paycheck to paycheck, I know what it is like to be behind on bills, but I BUDGET my money now because I know I have to. That doesn’t mean I’m going to feel sorry for someone who breaks the law and gets in trouble for it. Like I said, if you feel so bad, why don’t YOU pay their tickets?

    I’m done with this discussion, you aren’t worth my time.

  22. Andy says:

    PMD, from 2008-2011 there were almost 300,000 FPF’s… but during that time only 23,639 people had suspensions.

    That means many people are getting FPF’s over and over again… with the average being over 10 per person! Obviously there’s many people that only got 1… which leaves a lot of habitual non-paying residents.

  23. PMD says:

    You still haven’t said if my sister and cousin are also thugs. This is the third time I’ve asked. YOU called him a thug for flippin’ retail theft. That is insanely harsh and cruel and excessive and uncalled for, and it makes you seem like a callous jerk.

  24. PMD says:

    Andy I have no doubt that many people have multiple tickets and deserve to have their license suspended. But we’re talking about many thousands of people here. I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to paint with broad strokes and label them all moochers and losers.

  25. Andy says:

    I’d be painting myself with those same broad strokes because I forgot about a parking ticket and had my license suspended for it (maybe it was my registration actually?). So I’m not labeling anyone… but I don’t think people should get a free pass for breaking the law or not paying their fines.

    Alejandro for example made mistakes, seems to now understand the consequences thereof, and is working to rectify and answer for those mistakes. Looking at this case, it appears the system works.

  26. PMD says:

    I get what you’re saying. I just think with so many annual cases of license suspension, all situations and circumstances are not the same. In many cases, suspending or revoking someone’s driver’s license is probably extreme, especially if it prevents them from getting to their job. Yes they broke the law but I see people breaking the law on a daily basis (texting while driving, talking while driving) with no consequences whatsoever.

  27. Andrew says:

    This doesn’t just affect Milwaukee area. I live in Wausau & I’ve had a troubled past. I’ve owed over a grand in fines since I was 15, being 25 now & working for the past few years it’s become impossible for me to travel anywhere in the city without my car. I can’t change what petty crimes I did when I was a kid. I am in no way the same person I was back then, but why should I have to suffer 12 years after my first fine? This is completely unreasonable. This has led to me picking up 2 more charges for driving without a license, but I’ve never had a chance to attain my license. I’m a responsible driver, I don’t speed, I always wear my seatbelt, my car is insured & it’s not gonna break down on the road.

    It’s debilitating. I can’t find a decent paying job because of it. Most jobs require one. I haven’t even tried applying for my license knowing it’d be pointless.

    This law needs to change!

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